Never have racial epithets been so pleasingly tolerable as when uttered by Clint Eastwood.
The crotchety old may he plays in “Gran Tornio” weaves such slurs into his daily conversation with an unsettling poetic grace, his gravelly voice and facial expressions adding a hint of comic stoicism to language that most people ordinarily wouldn’t tolerate.
But Eastwood makes it work in “Gran Torino,” a film about a Korean War veteran forced to re-examine his set-in-stone way of doing things amidst a rapidly changing society. Eastwood, who also directed and produced the film, will likely garner more well-deserved attention this award season, as this movie worked all the way around.
Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski, a retired widower who treats his lower-middle-class property like it was amidst the disputed territory for which he fought 50 years earlier.
Trying to live out his final days in peaceful solitude, Kowalski is interrupted first by the obnoxious young priest (Christopher Carley) who promised his wife he’d look after her husband, and then the oldest daughter, Sue (Ahney Her), of the Hmong family that settled next door to him. As he tries to shoo away these outside influences, Kowalski is forced into the middle of things after gang-bangers who are fighting with his neighbors bring the dispute onto his front lawn.
The film gets its title from Kowalski’s prized possession, the vintage automobile he keeps in mint condition in his garage and that he helped build on the auto plant assembly line in 1972. The car becomes the target of the gang when its members try to initiate Sue’s brother, Thoa (Bee Vang), into their group. Caught at gunpoint in the act, he runs away and decides to avoid the gang’s influences – at least in theory.
The rest of the film involves the gang’s reluctance to leave Kowalski’s neighbors alone, and Kowalski’s reluctance in accepting that people of the same heritage that he was trained to hate in war were now such a big part of his life. Sue’s charm and unorthodox attitude toward race relations helped sway him, though, as did Thoa’s maturation during a two-week stint during which his family forced him to work for Kowalski toregain family honor (Kowalski had the teenager clean up the downtrodden house across the street, then in a humorous moment took orders from other families in the neighborhood to have him do chores at their homes).
The humor in this movie as a whole is its most surprising element. Some of the things said in this film would be atrocious anywhere else, but you can’t help but laugh at them when they come out of Eastwood’s mouth (for language and violence, this film is a solid R and should not be seen by young eyes). As the film progresses, the same epithets he used in earnest in the beginning were uttered for comedic effect by the end, creating several funny moments of banter involving his Asian neighbors, who weren’t shy about firing back.
Many people will go into this film expecting to see the usual, hard-nosed Eastwood acting crazy and ready to fire his gun at any moment. Those film-goers will get their share of Dirty Harry, but they’ll also see a softer side of the tough guy, perhaps an acknowledgment of his escalating years or an attempt to earn redemption.
As Kowalski seeks his own redemption by the film’s end, you can’t help but feel the pain that he kept to himself for decades – the decades of not relating to his children, of being disconnected from society and of memories of the atrocities he committed in Korea. You’ll feel vindication, as well, both for the character and that great cinema still can be made.